Why we need more “dangerous” embodiments

While comparing the differences in bodily motions of the white plantation owner and the black slave, I wasn’t sure if I was bringing my own set of expectations or if the difference in movement was intended in the game. The white plantation owner was clearly taller than the black slave, but I wasn’t able to figure out if the white plantation owner walked more “proudly” with his head held high than the black slave, who at first glance, seemed to keep her head slightly lower. It seemed like I had brought in my own set of expectations about the plantation owner and the black slave which drastically shaped my playing experience.

This brings me to two points: the importance of process-based projects and the need for more embodiments despite the “dangerous” nature. If the project was process-based and had a narrative of what was based on historical evidence and what was interpreted when designing the characters, I would be able to better distinguish what my own expectations were and adjust accordingly to perceptions that are more historically authentic. This is especially important for potential players of the game who might have very skewed ideas and biases of what a black slave or white plantation owner looked like. Grounding these embodiments with historically accurate accounts can be very dangerous, but we should not let the “dangerous” nature of these embodiments turn us away from making them. It is imperative that we expose people’s own expectations, just as it did with me, and make them confront and question these perceptions. As a result, people may have more well-informed thoughts and perspectives on controversial histories like slavery and get a more accurate depiction of what actually happened during that time.

Considering Digital Embodiment

Endeavoring to digitally recreate someone definitely has its challenges, which I had a very brief experience with. Very quickly I became conscious of what information I was drawing from, like the life experience of my pauper and the assumptions I would make about how they would affect my body. For example, how to you reflect the amount of physical work someone did while at the same time emphasizing the lack of nutrition?

While I found the experience of trying to make those decisions daunting and very weird, I do understand the importance of such representation. When exploring different models in class, playing the in the same environment with different avatars, I immediately noticed that I moved around the space differently. Now, this wore off pretty quickly when I noticed there was little procedural difference in that particular model, but future work could easily engage that same idea again.

Digital Embodiments Project

I think that digital embodiments like avatars can be very useful in combating stereotypes and promoting empathy, but only if they are researched and implemented in a methodical and careful manner. For example, if the differences in an avatar are superficial and don’t impact gameplay (however interactive that gameplay might be), then they won’t exactly do much of anything for the player. A good example of this is shown in the video game The Sims, where in the semi-realistic world the game creates, you could be a 7 foot tall blue person and no one would bat an eye. I think that technically the Digital Embodiments projects fall into this category, if only because the project is unfinished. If the project is finished with, say, NPC interactions and in-game objectives (and collision detection), I think the game could provide interested parties a chance to step in the shoes of different individuals in the conflict. Otherwise, it’s really just an exercise in model making,

Digital Embodiment and Historical Authenticity

While reading the Favro and Yee and Bailenson articles, and listening to the lecture in class on Wednesday, I was intrigued by the variety in the quality of each project’s model, reflecting both the size and budget of the project as well as the end goal of the project. A project, for example like the Roman Forum prototype that Favro uses in her article, requires more modeling detail than a less academically oriented project, like a video game, might when digitally recreating that sight. However, the inverse would likely be the case when discussing the detail required in modeling people. In the Yee and Bailenson article, the findings of the profound immediate effects on participants of the study highlighted in this article signal the importance and significance of historical accuracy, or at least authenticity in 3D modeling and digital embodiment.

In class on Wednesday, we tried to model the paupers we had studied to create Twine stories in MakeHuman. Trying to accomplish this task in a historically authentic manner proved much more difficult than I had expected. This exercise made me realize the level of research, planning, and thought that would need to go into a digital embodiment project in order to create historically authentic models.



Favro, Diane. “Se non èvero, èben trovato (If Not True, It is Well Conceived): Digital Immersive Reconstructions of Historical Environments.” Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians 71, no.3, (September 2012): 273-277.http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1525/jsah.2012.71.3.273

Yee, Nick and Jeremy Bailenson. “Walk A Mile in Digital Shoes: The Impact of Embodied Perspective -Taking on The Reduction of Negative Stereotyping in Immersive Virtual Environments.” Stanford University, n.d.

Digital Embodiment: The Importance of Character Design

After playing as different avatars and exploring the worlds that the Digital Embodiments project created as historical representations of Lakeport and Soweto, I found that which avatar I chose did affect my personal experiences. For example, when I chose the black female slave avatar at Lakeport Manor, I was slightly cautious and worried as I explored the world. I felt a little bit uneasy and uncertain of the world I was in, and I questioned whether or not I had permission to enter certain places. When I chose the white male plantation owner as my avatar, this uneasiness went away.

However, while this did affect my thoughts and emotions while I explored the game, I still would have explored the world in the same way each time, regardless of which avatar I had chosen. Although it’s clear that which avatar I chose had an effect on my experience, I feel like this effect wasn’t nearly as strong as it would have been if it were in combination with a storyline or plot in which I was clearly treated differently depending upon my avatar.

Ultimately, I think avatars are important in having players think more about the physical attributes they have and how that may affect the world they are in. At the same time, I feel like it is much more important that when trying to create historical accuracies, the way in which the world “makes” them explore should reflect their avatar’s physical characteristics to some degree. At the very least, I think that the way in which the avatar is treated by its environment should change depending upon the avatar’s physical characteristics.

Types of Avatars in Playable Reality

When creating a playable reality, the overarching goals of the game must be considered before implementing any sort of avatar. Some games let players create their own avatar to increase emersion, while other, more story driven games often give the player a predetermined avatar for reasons tightly wound to the narrative.

In a spatial reality, where the player’s goal is to explore a specific location of a historical event, the avatar does not truly matter, because the reason for playing the game is to gain a deeper understanding of the environment one is in. In an operational reality, where specific events in history are depicted in games, the avatar is incredibly important because most often the player will be assuming the role of a real person who existed in the past. The closer the avatar resembles that person, the more the player can feel immersed in that specific event.

In a procedural reality, where the player plays through an underlying situation and not a specific story, the avatar has more flexibility. Aa specific person’s story can be hindered by an avatar not closely aligned with the person’s true appearance. However, if a player is playing through a broader situation, avatar creation can draw players in and make them more immersed in the game. Therefore, they can understand the behaviors that arise in a situation in a deeper context. Trepte and Reinecke discuss the “ideal self” and the “actual self” in their essay, “Avatar Creation and Video Game Enjoyment,” discussing how players will generally create avatars with characteristics the players strive for or already have. Creating avatars that are similar to the player in this way links the player to their avatar in a way that a game where they are assuming the role of someone else cannot.


Trepte, Sabine, and Leonard Reinecke. “Avatar Creation and Video Game Enjoyment.”Journal of Media Psychology (2010), 21 Dec. 2010.

Digital Embodiment: Character and Environment

The Dangerous Embodiments project aims to give players different first-person perspectives of the experiences of people in Soweto and Lakeport. It attempts to embody this history digitally by allowing users to play as different characters such as a female slave and a male plantation master, in the case of Lakeport.

At first, I definitely noticed the physical characteristics of the avatar as which I am playing. The female slave at Lakeport seems more hunched over and timid, while the male plantation master is more burly and comes off as a more powerful character. However, as I progressed through the simulation I found that I paid less and less attention to the character as which I was playing until, eventually, I was essentially tuning it out and only paying attention to the environment around me. Because of this, I don’t feel I was able to gain as much of a sense of empathy as this project has potential to offer.

This point about the environment is key here. I feel that if these projects and included more environmental changes depending on which character you select, a much more immersive sense of embodiment would ensue. For example, not allowing the slave to enter the house, or certain parts of the house, that the master might help emphasize the historical situations and restrictions that came with each of the characters, better putting you into their experience. This could be done with social interactions with other non player characters added to the simulation as well.

Digital Embodiment

Character design is a crucial part of portraying a person as we immediately make inferences about people based on their appearance. When playing Dangerous Embodiments I was surprised the extent to which I started creating stories around the character models I was playing and by how much my imagined stories differed between character models even though the surroundings were the same. Creating character models is difficult for our projects though because we have little to no visual evidence for the paupers we are looking at. We know what the clothes they would wear look like, however, the physical appearance of paupers is rarely mentioned in the transcripts. This leaves us tremendous amounts of creative license when creating character models. While we should ensure that the models are historically accurate, we must also be wary of what emotions and thoughts they will elicit from users. What muddies the water is that users will have modern perceptions and stereotypes that they will apply to the models of historical figures. This can be used as a teaching moment to expose users to their usually unconscious modern stereotypes and even prejudices. One of the reasons studying history is important is that it can help inform current decisions, so drawing out users’ modern prejudices by applying them to a historical figure and showing how they don’t fit would be a great way to make users wary of their stereotypes. In practice, it may be hard to do and would require an introspective and alert user, however, it would be worth the work to make users question their beliefs and prejudices.

Superficial Embodiments in Lakeport and Soweto

The Digital Embodiments projects for Lakeport and Soweto have the main purpose of re-creating the historical environments of Lakeport and Soweto for the player to explore. Before entering the simulation, the player is asked to select an avatar that will represent them in the game space. These avatars represent historically typical figures for each environment that would, historically, have filled different and often opposing social roles.

However, upon interacting with the environment for more than a few minutes, it becomes abundantly clear that the physical appearance of the player’s avatar is nothing more than a generic skin. Despite the various avatars’ drastically different racial and social positions within the world that is being re-created, the player’s actual role is completely unchanged. At Lakeport Manor, the black, female slave is functionally identical to the white, male plantation owner. In Soweto, a student can do everything an officer can do. While these characters would comprise entirely different roles in history, they are identical in terms of the simulation’s functionality.

This is not to say that there is no merit to these digital re-creations. There is much to be gained from immersing a player in the environment and allowing them to explore freely and without restricting game mechanics. This implantation makes the environment much more accessible to people who would be otherwise unable to experience it in 3D space. However, the lack of depth beyond the physical appearance of the player’s avatar detracts from the overall meaningfulness of the experience.


Digital Embodiment

Digital embodiment can provide a means to promote empathy toward people in the past, but it can also be problematic. When trying to create my own character, it definitely made me think of who I was trying to represent, how I was engaging with stereotypes, and my own personal biases and interpretations. In that way, it may have helped me build some more knowledge of my own interactions with this historical figure. However, I also found it difficult in how historically inaccurate it feels to try to represent someone in the past while at the same time the player may not question how I chose to present this person.

While I find there can be issues in how characters are chosen to be represented and also in the ways in which people view those characters once they are out in the digital world, I feel it is more effective and engaging to have a character in a virtual world than to feel as though you are simply yourself walking through a ghost town. The “Dangerous Embodiments” virtual world made it apparent how important the interactions between virtual people are as well, and how coded all these interactions are. I think that these new technologies can have interesting implications in promoting empathy between different people, however as many of these embodiments deal with very sensitive material, people must be very careful in how they choose to represent the characters.